Mustard, Ketchup, or Pickles?

Mustard, Ketchup, or Pickles?

The text for this sermon is Luke 17:5-10. (Read it here.) Click below to listen to the sermon as delivered at the Condon (Oregon) United Church of Christ or scroll down to read it. The videos were included within the sermon. 

***

Flying cars were supposed to make our commutes painless. Computers were supposed to eliminate the stacks of paper that inundate modern life.  Kitchens of the twenty-first century were supposed to give us hours of free time to engage in the highest pursuits of humanity:

Did you hear that? There’d be no dishes to do…ever!

As an 8-year-old boy watching Walter Cronkite’s “The 21st Century”, I was filled with hope and excitement! But our world has not turned out quite like I imagined.

I do have a handheld computer that keeps me connected. It can be a video phone or a television set. It can be a book or a word processor, what we used to call a typewriter. It can be a newspaper or a calculator. It can even be a Bible and a sermon manuscript.

And, yet, the world is not full of leisure or peace and it’s hard to feel hopeful when the very technology that can connect us, too often distances us from those closest at hand. And what of the news itself that the technology brings us?

  • Impasse in Washington.
  • Mall shootings in Kenya and Portland.
  • Unemployment hovering near ten percent.
  • Children in Africa sold into slavery so that we can enjoy chocolate.
  • A quarter of American children in this country living in poverty.
  • The needs of the few outweighing the needs of the many and the poor.
  • Climate change that brings us extreme weather.
  • Nuclear power plants in Japan leaking radiation into the ocean.
  • Wars that last more than a decade.
  • And violent assaults in movie theaters, churches, and our streets.

At 8-years-old, I would never have imagined that I might be the target of a gunman. Yet that is what happened to children in Newtown less than a year ago! No, Walter Cronkite painted a very different image of the twenty-first century than the century we live in.

Perhaps my mistake was believing that as the technology evolved, we too would evolve and grow in our compassion and morality. Perhaps I was naive about the world.

***

Six of us made it to the Central Pacific Conference of the UCC’s Annual Meeting last week. The keynote speaker, the Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, a UCC minister and scholar, talked about the economic injustice which permeates our world.

In the United States, the middle class is disappearing. The poor are doing worse. Demands on food pantries across this generous nation are pushed to their limits. The extremely wealthy, the one percent who hold 40% of this country’s wealth and much of the political power, have more and more of our country’s wealth while the rest of us, who are either doing the work or have retired, have less.

This is not the twenty-first century I signed up for.

This is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

This is why the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s latest book is called Occupy the Bible and why I was a part of the Interfaith Guild of Chaplains for Occupy Portland during the time the tents were up in downtown. You see, like Susan Thistlethwaite, as a follower of Jesus, you and I are called to seek justice: racial justice, gender justice, orientation justice, and, yes, economic justice.

Our faith demands we care and act…but it sure is overwhelming. Really overwhelming!

***

Jesus and his disciples have been busy as we arrive at today’s passage. (See Luke 17:5-10.) They’ve been traveling and teaching and learning for a very long time. Jesus has insisted that his followers learn and do much.

They are to be faithful with money and be as shrewd as the dishonest manager. They are to welcome back into the fold those prodigals who live their lives recklessly spending their inheritance unwisely.

Jesus tells the disciples they must drop everything, leaving their metaphorical 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost. They have to be constantly aware of the economic injustice that leads to a man — Lazarus — dying outside the gate of the wealthy man. They are called to notice him and to seek justice.

As they get closer and closer to their destination in Jerusalem, Jesus’ expectations accumulate. Overwhelmed by his rigorous teachings, the disciples appeal to Jesus, Lord,

“Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5 CEB)

Do you blame them? I imagine they felt inadequate. I imagine they feared they weren’t up to the task. I probably imagine that because I feel that way, too. When I look at the world in which we live and read my Bible, I, too, appeal to God:

Lord! Give me strength! Increase my faith!

It would be so much easier if I could just reinterpret what Jesus is teaching to be about small things, about how I should pray or about following simple and straightforward rules. Sometimes I wish I were called to preach warm, feel-good teddy bear sermons.

Unfortunately for me, when I read my Bible, when I pray, and when I listen to the still-speaking God, I realize that Jesus was more concerned about the poor and about economic injustice than just about anything else.  Though we like to ignore it, a huge portion of Luke’s gospel is about Jesus’ teachings about money. In essence, Jesus is saying that how we spend our money — individually, as a church, and as a culture — is reflective of who and what we value.

Our ancient forebears lived in a world that was contrary to God’s dream for humanity. God-through-Jesus spoke a counter-cultural word to our ancient kin, to the disciples. The same is true in our times. We bail out bankers and hesitate to fund food stamps.

Though none of us wrote the rules of the game, we’re enmeshed in a system that values the wealthiest while those who produce our food and provide the labor get scraps. We’re living in times in which blaming the poor for their lot in life is common. The result is we follow the leadership of the powerful, the one percent, and dismiss too many of God’s children as expendable.

Like the disciples, we hear God’s call but cover our ears, sometimes even closing our hearts, because it’s just too much bear. It’s just too much to deal with. Like Jesus’ disciples, the task before us seems too great! And so we cry out,

Lord, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5 CEB)

***

And rather than tell us we need an all-beef footlong hot dog with a huge glob of ketchup and abundant pickle relish, Jesus tells us all we need is a tiny speck of mustard!

The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:6 CEB)

Too often this passage is read as Jesus criticizing the disciples for not believing enough. Eugene Peterson, for example,  author of the Message Bible interprets this passage that way.

Trouble is, using this passage to blame the overwhelmed for being overwhelmed and the poor for not having enough faith to become rich is inconsistent with Jesus’ friendship with the oppressed and poor of his time. Jesus repeatedly criticized the powerful not the powerless for unjust systems.

Rather than a harsh tone, I suspect Jesus responded with a tone of compassion and encouragement. It certainly would be more consistent within the context.

You have all the faith you need, Jesus tells them. A tiny mustard seed of faith is enough to move this tree. You can do it! Yes, you will make mistakes, says Jesus, and those around you will make mistakes but with repeated forgiveness, with continuous effort, and with love for one another, you can do it!

It only takes the itsy-est bit of mustard to flavor your footlong.

***

It is easy to feel overwhelmed. It is disappointing that we still have to do the dishes and that our cars don’t fly. It’s easy to do nothing because we don’t know what to do.

But the Good News is we each have enough faith to do our part. If we each do our small part, this church and community will be transformed for the twenty-first century. If each of us in each church in each town do our part to dismantle economic injustice, God’s unfolding realm of justice will grow.

All it takes is a tiny speck of mustard-ly love to change someone else’s life for the better. All it takes is a mustard seed of faith to change the world for the better. Mother Teresa reminds us that if we start with a small act of love, a mustard-seed size of faith, we can do bigger things:

“I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual. I can only love one person at a time – just one, one, one.

So you begin.

I began – I picked up one person.  Maybe if I didn’t pick up that one person, I wouldn’t have picked up forty-two thousand . . .

The same thing goes for you, the same thing in your family, the same thing in your church, your community.

Just begin – one, one, one.”

Mother Teresa seemed to understand what Jesus is saying in this passage. She acted out what Jesus is telling the disciples. We, too can do that. We’ve got the faith of a speck of mustard and Jesus has our backs. God’s around to help with the heavy lifting. We just need to do our part.

And, so, let go of the pain of the whole world. Start with one thing. Love first, withhold blaming the victim, make forgiveness a habit, and spend your money in ways that reflect your faith.

Focus your speck of mustard where God points.

Amen.

The Realm’s Rules or The Culture’s Commands?

The following sermon was delivered at the Condon United Church of Christ on September 1, 2013. The text for the sermon is Luke 14:1, 7-14. The video above is referred to in the sermon.

***
I was too young to serve in the Vietnam War. But I had the stateside nightmares of a child terrified by images on the television. The images of Viet Cong soldiers in my own living room are still etched in my memory.

But that was a child’s nightmare. A dream. It wasn’t real. It has long since lost its emotional hold on me.

I delivered newspapers for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the war. Each afternoon, a bundle of papers would show up on my front lawn, I would cut open the bundle, place them in my delivery cart, and take them to each home on my route.

One afternoon as I was cutting open the bundle, my next-door neighbor darted out of her house. Frantically, though not a subscriber, she begged to look at the paper.

“I’ve gotta know. I have to see the numbers.”

You see, for those of you who don’t know, they would print the draft numbers in the newspaper. These numbers would tell you whose teenage son would end up on a battlefield in the jungles of southeast Asia.

This mother was terrified — terrified — that her son, the baby she nursed at her breast, the not-yet-man to whom she read Dr. Seuss stories only a few years ago, the boy who never seemed to put his boxers away in his dresser drawer after she folded them…

She had to know if he was being called up. She was terrified that he was about to be ripped out of her arms before he had completely grown up.

That was a mother’s nightmare. It was not a dream. It was real. The emotional impact of that day has never — never — left me.

And, so, yesterday as the President spoke, I burst into tears because though we’ve sanitized war, it is still turning our back on God. It still involves killing someone’s child.  I weeped because once again, as a nation, we will likely be playing by The Culture’s Commands. Someone’s child will be killed by a bomb paid for with our taxes.

Once again we as a people, are turning away from The Realm’s Rules, away from God’s dreams for us. Evil, in Syria this time, has left our leaders believing that the only choice is more bloodshed and violence.

***

I’ve spent the week studying and reflecting on our gospel passage from Luke. It is often preached as being about humility. And it is about humility. That’s a legitimate interpretation. One problem with reading it as if it is only about being humble is that it can lead us to think that Jesus is somehow doing us a favor.

He’s trying to keep us from being embarrassed. The CEB translation even uses the word “embarrassed.” Listen to verse nine again,

The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Luke 14:9 CEB

And then in verse ten, as if Jesus is more akin to Miss Manners or Emily Post than the challenging prophet he is, Jesus says,

Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. Luke 14:10 CEB

No, to focus on the importance of humility runs the risk that we miss the critical point, the broader point that Jesus is making. Yes, we are called to be humble, to be servants of humanity but to focus on humility and humbleness alone is to miss the bigger message. Humbling ourselves to God is about trusting and following The Realm’s Rules. 

This passage is about rules.

It is about distinguishing between The Culture’s Commands and the nature of God’s unfolding realm on earth. Jesus is striving to make it clear that The Realm’s Rules are not the same as The Culture’s Commands. In this parable, we see that the ancient culture’s rules involved the most important person being given the highest position. Though our culture is more flat than that, more egalitarian, more equal, we are not immune to status worship.

Our culture idolizes celebrities, sports figures, and — though we like to deny it — the very wealthy. Why else would social media be abuzz this week about Miley Cyrus’ dance when we continue to have high unemployment and children — especially brown and black children — are daily victims of violence and poverty in this country?

Just as Jesus is telling our sometimes slow-to-understand ancient kindred that God’s rules are different than cultural norms, God is still speaking through this parable to us. As followers of Jesus, we are expected to follow The Realm’s Rules instead of The Culture’s Commands. Hear the eleventh verse again. Jesus says,

All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.” Luke 14: 11 CEB

In other words, Jesus shouts, “New Rules!”

We are not called to be successful. We’re not called to accumulate wealth, to idolize celebrities, to look out only for ourselves. We’re not called to use our power to have our way — as individuals or as a nation. Quite the contrary, Jesus turns the rules upside down. Jesus tells us that we should do for those who can do nothing for us in return. Jesus tells us not to invite our friends, brothers, sisters, relatives, or rich neighbors to lunch or dinner.

Says Jesus,

Instead, when you give a banquet, you should invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. Luke 14:13 CEB

Invite those who were unable in ancient culture to reciprocate. We’re called to give more than we take. We’re called to love people in the face of hatred. We’re called to welcome people even if it means they will never serve on a committee or give a dime to this church.

We’re called to introduce every single person we meet to the extravagant love and welcome of God — even if they never call themselves UCCers or cross our threshold. We are called to

love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, with all [our] being, with all [our] strength, and with all [our] mind, and love [our] neighbor as [ourselves.]” Luke 10:27 CEB

***

To live by The Realm’s Rules is not easy when we live within a culture that commands very different behavior. Some Christians, like the Amish, have chosen to live outside of mainstream culture as much as possible in their effort to be true to The Realm’s Rules and to avoid the pitfalls of The Culture’s Commands.

That is not the path any of us have chosen. We have chosen to live within the tension.

Some days I think it is the most foolish decision I’ve ever made. Sometimes I wish my faith allowed me to embrace The Culture’s Commands or that I could withdraw completely like the Amish, but my path is within the tension.

Living within the mainstream culture — within rules for living that are very different than Jesus’ rules for living — means we need one another more than ever. We need to call each other out when we stray too far outside of the unfolding realm and into our callous, me-first, violent, power-hungry, and wealth-idolizing culture.

We also need to challenge our leaders when the answer for evil acts is to punish an already-traumatized people with even more violence. This time, we are told, dropping bombs will somehow make the world a better place.

We’ve heard that line before and it is not the way of the unfolding realm of God.

The extravagant love of God dreams of a day when mothers and fathers no longer have their children ripped from their arms by poverty or war or our indifference.

The Good News is that the unfolding realm of God is up to the task. Love, God’s love,  is,  in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” The Good News is that we are not alone in our aching desire for Jesus’ upside down realm. Faithful people from Jews to Bah’ai to Sikhs to Rastafarians and, yes, even our Muslim sisters and brothers each have a sacred tradition of love for neighbor. We all have a variation on The Golden Rule as you saw in the video this morning.

Our calling as Christians is to open ourselves to the Spirit in prayer and to humbly interact with others.

When we do that, we will find the Divine using us to live peace and love into existence. When we do that, the unfolding realm of God will grow just a teeny bit bigger until the day when the One’s dream for humanity is realized. Amen.

 

 

Reflection: A Preamble & A Ministry

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew out of the American frontier in an era in which the suspicion of institutions was growing. In that respect, it is not unlike our current era. As people of faith our founders were suspicious of creeds that served as tests of faith. This rejection of tests of faith is a critical ingredient of our identity as a unique part of the body of believers and followers of Jesus. It is typical for Disciples to joyously share pews with others who have come to different conclusions about some specifics of the faith. We are stronger because of this divergence of opinions. We are a people living into a recognition that we need all parts of the Body of Christ.

As a lifelong Disciple, I approach even the Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church with suspicion that it may be a little too creedal. Yet, it is an accurate statement of what Disciples believe in common. As I reflect on the different parts of the Preamble and how they inform my ministry, please know that these are my thoughts and not necessarily representative of all Disciples of Christ.

Reflecting
 
The Preamble begins with a confession. This is significant not only in content but in form. We have all failed to live fully into the people God dreams we can be. I confess to God and to humanity that I have failed to live into that dream. I am too self-focused, too frightened, and too controlling to trust the Divine as fully as I am called. It is only through grace (undeserved forgiveness) that I am the recipient of God’s extravagant, unconditional love.
It is through Jesus that I, along with other Disciples, find the living God. For me, the image of a living God is the One who is active in the world, nudging us and luring us on the path toward the Kingdom. As our United Church of Christ sisters and brothers remind us God is Still Speaking. The living God feels our joys, our sorrows, and our frustrations deeply. 
It is the living God who cajoles me, pushes me, and lures me toward ordained ministry. It is the living God who demands of me that I share the joy, the contentment, and the restlessness for justice in witness and service to humanity. As the form of my ministry evolves, the profound pain, the deep woundedness of my fellow human beings demands that I express the living God’s extravagant love. This begins with confessing sins. I am called to confess personal sins, sins of my ancestors, sins of the Church, and sins of my generation. 
 
        Confession of sins is but the first step. The Creator’s covenant of love binds my ministry to others. I am not only bound to my fellow Disciples, or even just to fellow Christians, God’s covenant of love binds me to all of God’s Creation. I am bound to all of humanity, to the whole people of God. My call to ministry is bound to all who seek the Divine, by whatever name they call the Divine. My ministry is to those whose lives have been particularly severed by sin. (Sin is that which separates us from God and from one another.) The sin that separates them from the Divine and from others may be their own sin. The sin that severs may be my sin, it may be someone else’s sin, or it may be the systemic sin in which we all are entangled.
For Disciples, it is through baptism into Christ that we find newness, a life of re-presenting the Kingdom. It is as a follower of Jesus that my ministry finds Divine guidance and offers a glimpse of God’s emerging realm.  Yet, I acknowledge that human flaws require the saving acts of Christ. I am not alone. I am joined together with other Disciples, with other Christians in the universal church, and with others following different paths provided by the Divine One. Within the communion of the Holy Spirit I am joined by the whole people of God to bring healing, to bring a glimpse of God’s realm.
 
As I seek to yield myself to God, I perceive a special calling to those who have been wounded by the Church and to those who have never known or felt the abundant love of the One. As a follower of Jesus, my ministry, when true to the Holy Spirit’s prodding and coaxing is a witness and service to the whole people of God. As a follower of Jesus my ministry, when true to God’s abundant, unconditional love provides a glimpse of God’s healing of a fragmented world and what God dreams we will become.
Blessing, glory, and honor
   be to God forever. Amen.
 

Love & Inclusion Too Controversial?


Once again, the networks have rejected an advertisement from the United Church of Christ.

This ad, like the one rejected by the corporate media last time, focuses on the idea that God doesn’t reject anyone. This particular ad opens in a church sanctuary as you hear a baby crying and the camera pans to an African-American mother with a crying baby on her lap. Another congregant pushes a button and the mother and baby are ejected (like James Bond’s ejection seat in his car). Next you see a gay couple, someone pushes a button and they’re ejected. Then an hispanic man, a disabled person in a walker, and then multiple people being ejected. Finally, you see what appears to be a poor or homeless person sit in the pew near a white family who slides away. The tag line on the screen says: “God doesn’t reject people; neither do we” as the voice over says, “The United Church of Christ. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you’re welcome here.”

Well, apparently this is too controversial to play on the nation’s airwaves. Apparently, Jesus Christ’s message of love and compassion is too controversial in an era when filth and money rule the airwaves.

You can view the ad for yourself or send a message of protest to Viacom at http://www.accessibleairwaves.org